Indigenous Peoples of San Diego

At the turn of the new year, TPHS will be celebrating its 50th anniversary, California will celebrate 174 years of statehood and the U.S. will reach 248 years since becoming a nation. The new year will mark 482 years since Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arrived in San Diego Bay. However, for the Kumeyaay, the original inhabitants of San Diego County, the start of a new year is just a fragment of the fabric of their over 12,000 year history. 

“Before the Europeans came, our nation [spanned] all the way from Riverside, through the border and into Ensenada in Mexico and east to the Colorado River,” Ana Gloria Rodriguez, the director of the Sycuan Kumeyaay Cultural Center, said. 

For thousands of years, these first Californians lived in harmony with the land, traversing the area where TPHS now stands. And yet, much of their history remains buried, both literally — with modern development eroding many villages under the sea — and figuratively — diluting past events with white-washed narratives dispersed by colonizers. 

“We were faced with a genocide of California Indians,” Jacob Alvarado Waipuk, Tribal Liason for San Diego State University from the San Pasqual Kumeyaay Reservation, said.

However, even after being subject to continuous attempts at eradication, the 12 Kumeyaay Nation Bands of San Diego County remain steadfast in the celebration of their culture. 

“We’re still alive. We’re still here. Our language and culture is still very strong,” Rodriguez said, who resides intermittently on the Sycuan Kumeyaay reservation in San Diego as well as those in Baja California, Mexico. 

“We haven’t left, what does that tell you?” Waipuk said. “We’re very resilient people. We still believe in our way of life even though we are in another world that was built around us.”

Until the colonizers arrived, the Indigenous peoples of America had no written language. Instead, they passed down their knowledge through different avenues. 

“Art is really how we have been able to communicate historically,” Ruth-Ann Thorn, an artist and member of the Rincon band of Payómkawichum/Luiseño Indians, another local San Diego tribe, said. Thorn’s heritage and time spent living on the Payómkawichum reservation are the driving force behind all of her work as an art collector and documentary filmmaker.

“My grandparents grew up going to residential schools, so we never really talked about the horrible things that happened generationally,” Thorn said. “But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how important it is for us to have a voice and tell our stories from our own perspective.”

Many natives residing in San Diego share the same reinvigorated passion for preserving and sharing their heritage — even those who are not from local tribes.

“I pass down my knowledge to the younger generations,” Chuck Cadotte, an Elder from the Lakota Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, said.  “I teach them what to expect at PowWows [traditional indigenous dance gatherings]: the styles of dance and the meaning behind all of them. I read them stories that aren’t mainstream, but from Indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous students, from elementary school to university, are often a minority in education. 

“A lot of these children are by themselves in these schools, so sometimes it feels scary to want to indulge in your culture and be proud of it,” Marcia Hunter, chairman for the Parent Advisory Committee to the Indian Education Program at San Diego Unified School District, said. 

Hunter is of Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa (Northern Cheyenne) heritage and has a daughter who attends a SDUSD school. 

“Being around other children that have similar backgrounds really encourages them. It makes them feel nice about themselves, like they have an identity,” Hunter said.

Indigenous students of SDUSD are provided such an opportunity through the American Indian Education Center, a safe-space for not only children, but also adults to connect with their Indigenous roots through smudging, beadwork and pottery.

“I believe it keeps [the children] grounded so then that way they have something to fall back on,” Connie Greybull, coordinator of the SDUSD Indian Education Program and AIEC, said. Greybull is of Shoshone-Bannock (of Ft. Hall, Idaho) and Hunkpapa Lakota (of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe) heritage. 

“Our programs teach our kids it is okay to be native,” Julie DePhillipis, of Aleut (Alaskan) heritage and the Sacred Pipe Youth Coordinator at Southern California American Indian Resource Center, said. “At school they get bullied for the length of their hair or  their regalia, but we protect them and give them a balance in life.”

This kind of community support toward Indigenous students is similarly reflected at a collegiate level, especially at SDSU, which boasts one of the nation’s first American Indian Studies Departments, a Native Resource Center and a Native American Student Association. 

“We try to nurture our students’ mind, body and spirit,” Faculty Scholar for the Native Resource Center Matthew Fowler, who is of P’urhépecha and Chichimeca  descent, said. “It’s a place where they can feel at home because we have a lot of students who are leaving their communities for the first time. It’s a space of solace,” Fowler said.

In fact, many universities across the county are implementing more intensive programs surrounding Native American history. San Diego Mesa College has quickly followed suit.

“We want to institute not just a land acknowledgement, but a program for Native American students, so we can reconnect with the community,” Dr. Thekima Mayasa, the former chair of Black Studies at Mesa, said. “We want it to be a very authentic endeavor, so it’s not just performative.”

Conversely, Indigenous education at a high school level is still limited, with Native American history not currently required for public high schools in the Social Science Department by the California State Board of Education. This is especially true of SDUHSD, where only 0.2% of the student body is Indigenous, amounting to about 25 students across the four schools, according to U.S. News.

As per an anonymous survey conducted by the Falconer with 182 student respondents, 61.5% of students did not know of the Kumeyaay and 95.1% did not know of the Luiseño. Additionally, 96.7% of these students responded that they had not learned about the Kumeyaay or Luiseño in any of their high school classes. 

“I don’t believe that a majority of TPHS students have a proficient understanding of Indigenous history [because of the] lack of emphasis in the curriculum,” Lucia Franke, TPHS U.S. History teacher said.

Brothers Trevin (12) and Gavin (10) Henry of the Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops) Indian Band from British Columbia, agreed.

“If you look at Torrey, we don’t even have a good, centered club for native students, so it does make it difficult for us to connect with our culture,” Trevin said. 

Currently, no SDUHSD high schools have Native American student clubs or associations listed on their websites. However, The Falconer’s survey found that 58.2% of TPHS  students believe that Native American curriculum at TPHS should be expanded and 29.5% believe that TPHS should implement a land acknowledgment honoring the Kumeyaay people whose unceded territory our school stands on. 

Dr. David Kamper, associate professor and Chair of American Indian Studies at SDSU and NASA faculty adviser, is a so-called “settler scholar,” the term for non-natives in his discipline. Kamper has a first-hand understanding of the importance of educating non-indigenous people about native history. 

“I communicate to my students that even though they might not see a lot of native people, this is because of a dominant culture in the U.S. that has tried to make them invisible,” Kamper said. “They aren’t. I see their expressions of vibrancy all throughout my work.”

In a time where a lack of Indigenous representation in education persists, the native community of San Diego hopes that people of non-Indigenous heritage will open their hearts and minds to native culture. 

“We welcome everyone, even if you are non-native,” Greybull said. “We have been pushed aside for so long. We want to teach you that we are not who the books say we are.”

Photos by Natalia Mochernak/Falconer

4 thoughts on “Indigenous Peoples of San Diego

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post The Robotics Team
Next post Personal Perspective: Natalia Mochernak